I have a friend who routinely sleeps her way through flights from Honolulu to Washington DC. I am in awe of her.
It isn’t that I get nervous flying or anything like that. It is just that I’ve always been a terrible sleeper. For as long as I can remember, sleep was hard work. For something that is supposed to be an automatic physiological process, it certainly alludes me. Even when I was a little girl, I couldn’t just close my eyes and sail sleepily off to the Land of Nod. My mother used to dose me with Tylenol the night before the first day of school on a regular basis. I am not aware that Tylenol has any anti-anxiety or sleep-inducing properties, but she swore by it. I never had the heart to tell her that it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
What my mother did get right, though, was her intuition that I had trouble sleeping because my brain just wouldn’t shut off. My mind often manufactured strange sights and sounds emanating from my closet. I reran the activities, anxieties, and mistakes of the day until the soundtrack screamed inside my head. Even when I did sleep, my brain tended to stay half alert. That half alert portion of my mind would entertain itself by telling itself stories… usually not very pleasant stories. Hence, it was common for me to wake from any slumber I did get, completely convinced that the dreams I had been dreaming were real. As a child, I sometimes had night terrors. I would awake screaming and crying hysterically without knowing why. Once in a while, I would even sleep walk. Even when I grew up, I would sometimes wake to find myself curled up on the floor with no memory of how I got there.
Understandably, the night terrors started training me to not sleep. I would be awake all night with some regularity. As anyone with even occasional insomnia knows, the worst possible thing you can do is to lie there in the dark thinking. I knew that instinctively, even as a child. I tried counting sheep like in the cartoons, but those sheep always seemed to live more interesting lives than I did. My imaginary sheep, instead of just leaping the imaginary fence as I counted them, would talk and wander off on adventures. I tried praying, but this would often end up with me thinking a great deal more than was conducive to sleep. I tried reading with a flashlight under the covers until my parents confiscated the flashlight.
Neither of my parents ever had a difficult time with sleep, so they were a bit perplexed when I tried to explain what I experienced. My mother employed two strategies when she found me awake at some inappropriate hour. First, she would simply tell me to “stop thinking and go to sleep.” When that didn’t work, she would haul out the Tylenol. At least dosing me with acetaminophen made my mother feel better, even if it didn’t get me any more shut-eye.
As an adult, my sleep never really improved. I came to accept that there were no monsters in my closet, but the real-life monsters in my head were still there. In times of particular stress, I stopped sleeping completely. I remember once, after my ex-husband left me, I didn’t sleep for five nights in a row. After some persuasion, I allowed my doctor to prescribe some sleeping medication. I then accused her of giving me placebos because the sleeping pills didn’t seem to help. Sleep deprivation does tend to make one a bit irrational. She swore up and down that the medication was real, but I still am not sure I believe her.
I did eventually start sleeping again, of course. The overall problem continued, however. When an interaction with a customer did not go well at work, I could pretty much count on spending the night trying to retool the conversation instead of sleeping. There were lots of times when a simple phone message from a difficult person was enough to bar the door to Zzzzville for me. When my mother was ill, it was rare that I ever slept more than 3 or 4 hours a night. I tried all the home remedies. I tried to go to bed and get up at the same time each night. I tried turning my clock around so I couldn’t see the time. I tried relaxation exercises. I tried getting up and doing something calming for awhile when I did not fall asleep after twenty minutes or so. Given that criteria, I was up doing “something calming” for most of the night. I took over-the-counter sleeping pills. What I didn’t do was put my phone in another room so it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to maniacally google every thought that came to my mind, in a vain attempt to find the answers to unanswerable problems. Again, sleep deprivation does tend to make one a bit irrational.
Since my mother’s death, my sleep and lack thereof has pretty much returned to my “normal.” Towards the end of my mom’s illness, my doctor prescribed a new kind of sleep medication. Its formula is designed specifically to shut down the “awakeness” of the brain. It is wildly expensive. Also, the pharmacist acted like I was asking him for heroin when he filled the prescription. I took the hint and only take it when I have gone several nights in a row with no sleep. It helps a lot. I am also finding that my recent journey of self-happiness is helping. As my brain gets more practice at living in the moment and saying “yes” to things I want to try even if they are outside my comfort zone, I seem to be able to say “yes” to sleep a little better.
I will probably never be a talented sleeper. When most people get their forty winks, I only get twenty-two-and-a-half. But I’m trying not to let that fact keep me up at night!
What helps you sleep? What techniques can you share that may help me increase my wink production? Did you notice a change in your sleeping patterns when you retired? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@@gmail.com.
Have a restful day!
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